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Get ready for another Northwest summer with smoky skies. Here’s why

Smoke from wildfires around British Columbia and the West obscures a normally scenic view of Mount Shuksan and the Cascades range from the parking lot at Artist Point in Whatcom Country WA, in August 2018.
Smoke from wildfires around British Columbia and the West obscures a normally scenic view of Mount Shuksan and the Cascades range from the parking lot at Artist Point in Whatcom Country WA, in August 2018. The Bellingham Herald file

Three new reports could spell even more trouble for firefighters and those with breathing ailments around the Northwest.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center and the National Interagency Fire Center are doubling down on this week’s forecasts for extreme summer fire danger and lack of rain, with “drought development likely” and wildfire potential “above normal” in the Northwest.

Further, snowpack in the North Cascades near Bellingham is 71 percent of normal, the Natural Resources Conservation Service said Wednesday.

All that leads to an ever-increasing chance for fires and smoky skies this summer.

“It’s been a very busy spring,” said Mitch Nolze, a Whatcom County fire investigator. “We’re definitely concerned. People definitely need to be careful.”

He said the number of light brush fires in rural Whatcom County is above normal in the first three months of 2019.

“Some have been a pretty significant size,” he said in an interview. “We’ve probably had, I’d say in the past month, upwards of 100 acres burn. We’ve had a couple structures threatened.”

Whatcom County is under an air quality alert Monday, August 20 due to smoke from wildfires in British Columbia. Some improvement is anticipated late Wednesday.

Bellingham firefighters tackled a small brush fire Monday night along the BNSF Railway tracks near Woodstock Farm and Nolze said one fire last week in Acme burned 20 acres.

Nolze said some of the recent fires got out of control because the people tending them weren’t following all the rules of having water on site and clearing the area around the fire to bare ground.

“People don’t realize how dry it was,” Nolze said. “That snow insulates the ground and keeps it dry. We haven’t been getting any rain. We’ve had a little drizzle, but we need more.”

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Wildfire potential in Oregon and Washington is “above normal,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center in a report issued April 1, 2019. National Interagency Fire Center Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

According to National Weather Service data, March rainfall was about one-third of normal and Bellingham has set five high temperature records since March 17 — including a high of 71 degrees on Tuesday that broke the record of 69 from 1992.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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